Jean-Claude Van Damme - Luc Devereaux/GR 44
Dolph Lundgren - Sergeant Andrew Scott/GR 13
Ally Walker - Veronica Roberts
Ed O'Ross - Colonel Perry
Jerry Orbach - Dr. Christopher Gregor
Leon Rippy - Dr. Woodward
Tico Wells - Garth
Genre - Action/Science Fiction
Running Time - 102 Minutes
While Full Moon Reviews is mainly a horror-centric blog, I do love action films. Watching things explode, epic car chases, and people getting done in by a multitude of weapons onscreen gets this guy's blood pumping. Sometimes watching people scream as a masked killer causes blood and guts to spill out can get a bit old. So watching a good action flick, especially from the 1980s and early 1990s will do the trick.
Two of my favorite action stars happen to star in the very film I'm reviewing here today. Dolph Lundgren has been a fave since 1985's ROCKY IV, which happens to be my personal favorite of that entire franchise even though the first ROCKY is better made. I watched Lundgren in 1987's MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE in theaters, which I'm pretty afraid to watch nowadays knowing that the cheese factor will cause my Lactose Intolerance to act up. Add THE PUNISHER (1989) and 1991's SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO and you got yourself a fan.
And then there's Jean-Claude Van Damme - an action star I wanted to be as a kid ever since I saw him kick ass in 1988's BLOODSPORT. I have seen all of his early films such as 1989's KICKBOXER and CYBORG, 1990's LIONHEART and DEATH WARRANT, until 1994's STREET FIGHTER: THE MOVIE adaptation that soured me on Van Damme. He's done some good recent work as of late, especially 2008's JCVD film that garnered much critical acclaim.
Lundgren and Van Damme would team up a few times during their careers, but it all started in 1992's action classic UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. While the two men would later star in two UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequels as well as the upcoming THE EXPENDABLES 2 [next year's anticipated action film], the first time is always the most special. I had seen UNIVERSAL SOLDIER in theaters during its release and I loved it, especially Lundgren's demented performance as a former Vietnam soldier. It did solid business at the box office and made Roland Emmerich's career as an action film director. But does the film still hold up 19 years later?
We start out during the Vietnam War, where Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) confronts his Sergeant, Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), who has gone insane and has decided that torturing civilians and cutting their ears off for a necklace is good medication. The two end up stabbing and shooting each other to death. However the two don't rest in peace as a group of scientists hired by the government find the two to hide the evidence and use them in some sort of experiment that reanimates their corpses.
Many years later, Luc [now called GR 44] and Andrew [now called GR 13] are now part of a secret Government militia where the two men have been programmed to be fighting machines with no trace of their former lives. However, a nosy reporter named Veronica Roberts (Ally Walker) begins investigating these soldiers after they stop a terrible hostage situation. Her curiosity leads to the death of her cameraman, after Andrew kills him while taking photos for evidence. This causes Luc to have memories of his time in Vietnam, stopping Andrew and escaping with Veronica. Slowly, both Luc and Andrew begin to remember their former lives - Luc wanting to protect Veronica and find out the truth while Andrew sinks further into the pool of insanity started during Vietnam. The two eventually confront each other, battling to settle an old score and to see who truly is the UNIVERSAL SOLDIER.
UNIVERSAL SOLDIER was one of those films back in the day that was considered epic for action film fans who wanted to see Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme kick the crap out of each other onscreen. It seemed perfect for action audiences, with the science fiction elements bringing in another audience who probably wouldn't have been as interested. Even 19 years later, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER could have been more than what it ended up being. Even so, the film is still pretty solid and watchable after all these years.
The screenplay by Dean Devlin, Christopher Leitch, and Richard Rothstein is extremely formulaic. We get the typical good must conquer evil story. We get the amnesia subplot that leads to the main characters remembering their past and hatred for each other while revealing other mysteries. We get the nosy female character who ends up being the hero's ally/love interest. We get the cliche explosions, car chases, and final battle. It's all been done before in other films, probably even better in those other films. But while UNIVERSAL SOLDIER ends up being predictable and eager to capitalize on the success of T2: JUDGMENT DAY [which was released a year prior], the screenplay follows the formula quite well and still manages to craft an entertaining, while very shallow, narrative. It's an action sci-fi movie and makes no disguise of what it is.
That being said, there are moments in the film that either don't make much sense or just added in for pad on unnecessary time. The illogical moments is best represented right at the start of the film, where Andrew Scott is murdering Vietnamese citizens and cutting their ears off after he's gone insane. While this probably happened during the war, it's odd that Andrew seems to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the war rather than after it. Maybe the guy was just mentally unstable from the start, but we don't know that because the story begins towards the end of his madness rather than at the beginning. There's no idea what set Andrew off like that, especially when Luc still seems rational enough to comprehend what's real and what's right - making it weirder when both men were brothers in arms the whole way and experienced the exact same things.
Also, the whole experiment that took Luc and Andrew and made them Universal Soldiers is never really explained in enough detail to understand how it was possible. I understand the reasoning behind it somewhat, and we see some of the process during the experiment, but the issue could have been addressed better - especially since it was a huge part of the film. I mean, how did the ice heal Luc's injuries but not some of the others? I also thought the final subplot with Luc's family was too rushed and didn't feel organic at all. Not sure if it was the writing or the acting.
Then we have two filler scenes. The first one involves Luc inside the diner, where he eats a bunch of food and beats up people after they realize he's unable to pay for it all. While the scene does manage to be quite comical in a good way and allows Luc's more playful and childlike innocent personality display itself, it doesn't really move the plot all that much really. It's there just as an excuse to have Van Damme display some kick ass moves to a bunch of nameless victims. Same goes with Andrew's scene at the truck stop, which is just a scene for Lundgren to kick some nameless ass as well. While both scenes do allow some drop of personality for all characters involved to come through, the film wouldn't have changed all that much if these scenes were absent.
But the screenplay does have some decent dialogue scenes and funny one-liners by both Luc and Andrew. And the characters, while very formula and cliche, work well for the story. The innocent and moral hero, the demented villain, the nosy reporter who says she wants a story but is really falling for the hero, the power-hungry military man, and the regretful scientists - they're all here and their parts are perfect to a tee.
The highlight of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER are the action scenes. Roland Emmerich, who would later direct INDEPENDENCE DAY, STARGATE, 1998's GODZILLA, THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, and 2012, does a damn good job creating some big action sequences. The scene where the truck driven by Andrew is ramming into a bus holding both Luc and Veronica is quite the sight. A lot of the fight sequences are quite bloody and brutal to watch. We get sliced ears. We get a lot of bullets hitting body parts, especially the head. We get broken necks, explosions, and a really bad spiking. Emmerich makes all these moments quite energetic and memorable. The film looks quite polished due to its decent budget and the pace is very good, as the film moves quite fast. We also get the typical slow motion when the hero rises up to get the upper hand against his foe. We get some nice angles. We have some great locations, creating some beautiful cinematography. Emmerich handles a very good action film visually here. I think out of all the films he has directed since UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, this one happens to be one of his better ones even to this day. It's what everyone expected out of a 90s action film, using cool visual moments and entertaining action sequences to compensate for a limited and predictable story.
The acting is better than one would probably think out of a film starring both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Van Damme, while not the best actor in the film, does display some decent chops through Luc's emotional journey by creating sympathy and vulnerability that allows the audience to care and root for him. Plus he handles comedy quite well also. He's really at his best when he lefts his hands and feet do the talking for him. And yes, he even shows his butt in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. You can't have a Van Damme film without one of his trademarks, now can we? On the other hand, Lundgren manages to become the star of the film in his demented role as Andrew Scott. I bought the guy at every turn. He chews the scenery with the best of them, obviously having fun playing the villain and creating some humorous moments while still being a major bad ass. He has great chemistry with Van Damme and when the two meet, they banter and confrontation is quite entertaining. As for the other main actors, Ally Walker [best known for her role on TV's The Profiler] does okay as Veronica Roberts, nosy news journalist. The character on people is kind of annoying at times, but Walker makes the most of her part and tries to give the character some depth. She's not bad to look at either. Ed O'Ross as Colonel Perry plays an asshole and does it well as usual. And Jerry Orbach makes a cameo as well towards the end of the film. Always nice to see Mr. Orbach in anything.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE ASKING SOME RANDOM LADY TO FIND "SOMETHING HARD" [IT MEANS THE HIDDEN TRACKING DEVICE IN MY LEG, YOU PERVERTS]
- Andrew Scott made a necklace of ears during his run in Vietnam. No matter how many he'll collect, he'll still have trouble understanding Luc through his accent. If it didn't work for Rocky, it won't work for Guile.
- Luc became unresponsive as he started to remember his past. I've been the same way lately while remembering listening to that Metallica/Lou Reed album. Make it go away...
- Luc is in constant need of cooling down, standing naked in front of air conditioners and bathing in ice. If the female character was a maid, Arnold Schwarzenegger and probably Joel Schumacher would have jumped all over this.
- Veronica couldn't understand why Luc was acting so strangely. For a Profiler, she sure has trouble figuring people out.
- Andrew Scott destroyed most of the military personnel who brought him back to life and gave him orders. Once you've been one of the MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, being THE PUNISHER of those who believe they're better than you comes quite easily.
- Luc and Veronica had issues trying to gain control of a police bus after the driver was shot by Andrew. See, this is why Sandra Bullock has an Oscar and none of these actors do not.
THE FINAL HOWL
Almost twenty years old, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER still manages to be a good action film that will entertain fans of the genre. It's still a popular film, especially since no one knew it would spawn two made-for-TV sequels, a theatrical sequel, and two direct-to-video sequels [with one coming out in 2012]. Not surprising since the original happens to contain what action fans want - fast car chases, brutal fights and kills, humor, and two action legends kicking ass and having some fun doing so. Film snobs will crap over the fact that the narrative doesn't have much depth and is completely predictable. But that's not the point with a film like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. It may lack in brain cells, but it compensates for it with a ton of energy and entertainment. There are better action films before and since UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, but it's still solid enough for watch when you need an action film fix.
3 Howls Outta 4